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Isle Mujeres. All photos by Rhonda Spivak

cleaning the beach

vendor on the beach

mural painted on a private home


by Rhonda Spivak, December 27, 2009,

Isle Mujeres, which in Spanish means “Women’s Island” is less than an hour by boat ride from the bustling Mexican city of Cancun and easily lures tourists to its white beaches, and quaint captivating village. Some tourists, like myself, stay just for the day, but others, who enjoy the slow relaxed pace of island life stay much longer.
The island is known as the Women’s island because in pre-Columbian times it was sacred to the Mayan civilization and was a sanctuary dedicated to the Mayan goddess of childbirth Ix Chel. There was a temple to the Mayan Goddess but it has been damaged by a hurricane and is not a site that most tourists would necessarily even be aware of, unless they happened to read about the island’s history.
In 1517 a Spanish butcher by the name of Francisco Hermandez de Cordoba happened upon the island searching for slaves for Cuban mines. The slavers found nothing but old statues which they perceived to be statues of women, thus the name of the island, "Isle of Women
Arriving at about ten o’clock in the morning, I had the island’s best white sandy beach, Playa Norte, virtually to myself—this is not an island that rises early.  The only people I passed by were a couple of Mexican men who were cleaning the seaweed off the shores of the beach.  What I will remember most is the turquoise green translucent water of the island. I waded in slowly to the still waters to watch a few Pelicans congregating around small fishing boats. The pelicans are so used to tourists that they didn’t fly away as I approached. The island, which was not a tourist area until the building of Cancun still  has the feel of a sleepy fishing village, and the weathered looking fishing boats of the  islanders line the dock area .
By noon, the beach was full of people who swung in lazy hammocks, lounged on cots, or walked playfully along the shore. Sea food restaurants can be found near the docks where the boats arrive to the island. On the beach, be prepared to encounter vendors who come to sell small trinkets, shell necklaces, and the like. Like so many others, I bought a small item for five dollars from a Mexican woman who came up to me as I was resting on the beach—not because I really wanted it but more because it was easier just to buy it and let her move on.
Many come to the Isle Mujeres to enjoy snorkeling at El Garrafon Natural Park, and it is also possible to see the reefs in glass-bottom boats.  Pleasure boat cruises are also a favourite island pastime, and modern motor yachts, catamarans, trimarans, and water taxis dot the shores of the island.
The island has for years managed to maintain a sense of remoteness, even while being a stone's throw away from Cancun. Much of the island's wilderness has been left intact, especially since the fact that the windward side of the island is too rough for beaches such that it makes at least half the island unsuitable for hotels.
Many visitors rent a Golf Cart (most popular transportation for tourists) or moped to go around the island, and it is also possible to rent bikes.
I spent my time wandering about the downtown shopping, and restaurant area of the island. While there are some attractive more upscale restaurants, cafe’s and shops, there are also definitely very poor, neglected looking areas, and it is easy to get disoriented.  A high end shop could be next to a poor hovel. For those who wish to see only the luxury of an all inclusive resort, downtown Isle Mujeres would not be the town to visit.
Bargains can be found in the smaller shops that are on quieter streets further away from the main streets.
Sometimes what I thought appeared to be a brightly painted shop was in actuality a small home. The islanders tend to paint their homes in the brightest of colours—red, pink, orange, purple —which gives the island a vibrant feel.  Some Mexicans had even painted rather elaborate murals on the outside of their impoverished homes.
Had I had more time, I would have taken an all day excursion to the natural wildlife habitat of the more remote Isla Contoy, which is 90 minutes past Isla Mujeres and is famous for its flora, fauna and the fact that it is a  major nesting area for  over 70 species of  birds. On second thought however, I may have decided to not go after all, even if I had had the time. That’s because I read that one has to be careful of boa constrictors and the small crocodiles that live in the island’s ponds.  
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.